Saving Smart Meters From a Backlash

Fears of irradiation from antennas threaten to smother smart meters in the crib

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Technological change constantly surprises even the attentive. The invention of the transistor went virtually unnoticed in 1947. The personal computer came together in the early 1980s with astonishing speed, humbling mainframe experts who presumed everlasting hegemony. And handheld devices married to the cellular network are redefining consumer electronics, entertainment, and even computing itself.

Innovation forces engineers especially to concentrate their minds on the next big thing. Yet a big change is happening virtually unnoticed and, even worse, is inspiring fear and loathing in the masses.

I speak not of vaccines or emerging variants of E. coli or mishandled nuclear reactors. I speak of the smart meter. Just as activists once cried, "Ban the bomb!" they are now crying, " Ban the smart meter!"

We define ourselves as much by our enemies as our friends. The smart meter is a digital computer that measures the flow of gas and electricity into my house and reports on my usage to a central database, which I can, at least theoretically, access (when my utility finally gets around to letting me do so). Sometime last year, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. replaced my old meter with a smart meter, which carries a tiny antenna that broadcasts information wirelessly. PG&E supplied me the meter at no extra charge.

My smart meter resides about 25 meters from where I write this column. I visit my meter often. When I walk out the front door of my modest bungalow and head left alongside my garage, I quickly reach my meter, which actually sports (in big letters) the moniker "Smart Meter."

The meter gives off ultrahigh-frequency radio waves, but then so does my iPhone. Across the United States, about 20 million similar meters have been installed. By 2015, Chris King, chief regulatory officer of eMeter Corp., expects 25 percent of utility meters to go smart, with millions more smart meters to be installed between now and 2020.

smart meters sign
Image: Ban Smart Meters website

Hooray for progress! Even the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the world’s most knowledgeable groups on these matters, has reviewed the science behind the technology and declared it safe.

At a time when nothing beats improving energy efficiency, my smart meter opens the door to nifty future services that will reduce the carbon footprint of my house, help me manage my electricity more efficiently and, someday, even provide my house with greater security.

Yet the unassuming smart meter is provoking the most intense organized opposition to a technological artifact since vaccines were tagged (wrongly) with causing autism in kids. In the superstates of California and Texas, as well as Connecticut, resistance to smart meters has grown so high and widespread that temporary or permanent bans on these devices have been imposed or debated.

Echoes of the Luddites? A ban because of fears over exposure to UHF radio waves—by people who cling to their cellphones as if their lives depended on sending one more text?

Here’s the difference between smart meters and cellphones for people too confused or paranoid to observe this for themselves: I hold my phone next to my ear to talk, and it’s on my person almost always. I don’t hold the smart meter to my head or carry it around in my pocket. It’s stuck in the ground outside my house. Smart meters are not going to increase my chances of contracting brain cancer, but my frustration with people who believe that is definitely raising my blood pressure.

Radiation isn't the only complaint. Smart meters store much personal data on electricity usage, which could violate privacy if not safeguarded. And new meters have spawned complaints of inaccuracy in Texas and California; these charges have been debunked by utilities, but fears of inaccurate are fanned by the introducing the meters alongside new rate plans, making straight-up comparisons with the past difficult.

Photo: Pat Sullivan/AP Photo

To be sure, the brouhaha over smart meters is a reminder that new technologies require patient explanations or clever promotions in order to win acceptance. And once the virus of suspicion and mistrust spreads, even an electricity meter begins to look menacing. In California, fears run so high that Santa Cruz and Marin counties have voted to ban them. And PG&E, which has one of the nation’s most aggressive rollout plans, has asked its government regulator to allow customers an opt-out plan.

PG&E’s request, which regulators could approve by September, would charge customers for the privilege of making their smart meters "dumb" by having the antennas switched off. To have this done, the customer would pay a one-time charge of US $135 and then a monthly fee of $20 to cover what PG&E says are the costs of humans reading stupid meters. In economic terms, these charges are disincentives, yet PG&E estimates that at least 145 000 customers will choose to opt out.

While the largest state prepares to affirm opposition to smart meters by sanctioning opt-outs, smaller states are likely to do the same. Maine, for instance, decided in May to permit customers to choose to have their meters’ transmitters turned off for a one-time cost of $20 and an annual fee of $120.

Refusing a new technology is a democratic right, of course, but in this case it reflects a shoddy way of thinking about the electricity system. Opt-outs, in short, carry significant social costs because of network effects. The less folks use smart meters, the more everyone ends up paying for power.

Part of the problem is the way digital devices in other realms offer choices. My cable box, for instance, lets Comcast switch on HBO in seconds at virtually no cost to register the change. If I watch less of HBO, there isn’t more for the rest of the viewers. If I text more on my iPhone, it doesn’t mean that my friends can text less.

Not so with electricity, where hard limits mean usage often is a zero-sum game. Smart meters promise to make this game more fair. Utilities traditionally sell gas and electricity in a one-size-fits-all manner. At most, they impose a "ladder" system, in which a higher or lower rate kicks in depending on the step or level of the customer’s usage.

The new frontier in power distribution is to create more incentives and options for consumers to use electricity and gas when it is cheapest and most plentiful. And such choices are only possible through smart meters.

Smart meters cost money, of course, and utilities ultimately have to recoup money from their customers or from government subsidies. So there is a legitimate cost-benefit question around whether new meters pay back their installation costs through energy savings.

Even when smart meters do make sense economically, hard times can intrude. Energy costs are rising because of higher costs of source materials, such as coal, or operating costs of nuclear power plants. Customers also worry about an aging gas pipeline infrastructure that requires costly investments in repair or replacement. Why not spend on these improvements rather than meters?

Poor public communication also helps sow the seeds of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Seemingly unaware of the potential for calamitous misunderstanding, PG&E began rolling out smart meters in some places alongside a change in its rate structure, raising doubts about the accuracy of the meters because monthly bills were different even when usage was the same. In response to thousands of complaints about inaccurate meters, PG&E ended up having to commission a massive report, running more than 400 pages, in order to demonstrate the new digital meters are actually more accurate.

Utilities are chastened but are not cowering in fear in the face of public frustration, anger, and confusion over smart meters. A coalition of utilities and meter makers has formed a national organization called the SmartGrid Consumer Collaborative to improve public understanding of new metering technology.

Individual utilities also are learning lessons from the debacle in California. The Arizona Public Service Co. is wooing customers with information about the benefits of smart meters rather than depending on the presumption that new is always improved. "We’re stressing the benefits of the meters and relying on the importance of education," says Barbara D. Lockwood, director of energy innovation at APS, in Phoenix.

Even health issues are taken seriously. Utilities concede that apartment complexes might require a different approach, since clustering scores of transmitters close together might present a credible risk of too much radiation. Installation options now include shielding, which blocks the UHF waves, in situations where a meter might be too close to occupants.

These changes in promoting smart meters may not be enough. Once a belief gets amplified across the Web, it can be hard to eradicate, even when it is groundless. Smart meters could well become the big new fear in a society where the endless embrace of new technologies invariably co-evolves with a nagging suspicion of hazards too horrible to discuss. But there’s hope. Just as I have made a separate peace with my smart meter, others also will.

This article was updated on 05 July 2011.

A version of this article appeared in August 2011 print edition of IEEE Spectrum.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (The Free Press, 1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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